Hurricanes Harvey and Irma – The technology that’s helping those stranded, stay connected

Posted by: Graham Lacey, 13th September 2017

Over the course of just a few days, the world has been shocked by images and videos showing the impact Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have had; their destruction and devastation sweeping across the USA and surrounding areas, destroying livelihoods.

Amidst the emergency and panic, the need to reach out for help, or to reassure loved ones, is never greater – which is why telecoms organisations have been stepping up to improve connectivity for those affected.

An example of this is Vodafone’s Foundation Instant Network Team, who have been connecting rescue workers and enabling affected families to contact their relatives by deploying their ‘Instant Network 3G’; a mobile network in four suitcases which can be taken on a commercial flight;

“Consisting of an antenna, a foldable mast, an industrial computer and base transceiver station, the equipment is powered by generators and can provide coverage within a radius of one kilometre.” The company explained.

Vodafone Foundation also stated that their Classroom Xtra, a ‘digital school in a box’, is being repurposed to create an emergency cybercafé to enable communities to contact their loved ones and to support the humanitarian relief programme:

“Affected areas will be able to use the emergency cybercafés to borrow tablets, charge their phones and connect to free Wi-Fi.”

This is in addition to the company’s outdoor mobile charging station, which provides 66 charging points to communities in areas with no power.

Andrew Dunnett, Vodafone Foundation Director, said: “Through our Instant Network programme, we are able to deploy our people and our technology to provide communications support at a critical time. Ensuring people are able to communicate in the aftermath of a natural disaster is crucial, both for the coordination of aid and to enable those affected to reconnect with family and friends”.

Alternative technology

Whilst Vodafone is working to deploy more on-the-ground solutions, other telecoms organisations have turned to alternative technology to help those effected, as NPR explains:

“To speed up the process of getting everyone back online, telecom companies are starting to use drones. According to experts, these unmanned planes can access where the damage is, finding the best routes to get there and what equipment to bring. Both AT&T and Verizon have confirmed they are getting drones in place to help with recovery efforts.”

Speaking before the hurricanes hit, AT&T explained:

“We will have more than 700 pieces of equipment, including our Cell on Wheels (COWs), Cell on Light Trucks (COLTs), trailers, generators and more available to maintain our network and benefit the first responders who use it. The NDR team is also evaluating integrating Flying COWs (Cell on Wings) into the fleet of assets to provide emergency cell coverage for first responders and to the public if our network is damaged during a hurricane.”

They continue: “Our deployables and equipment can help them (aid workers) stay connected during emergencies and operate faster, safer and more effectively when lives are on the line.”

Free Of Charge

In addition to making sure the required communications infrastructure is in place, telecoms organisations also wanted to facilitate the obvious increase in demand from those needing to contact for help, or to reassure loved ones.

Xfinity and Charter Communications are both making Wi-Fi hotspots available, even to those that are not their customers and Jersey Telecoms has waived all roaming charges. Meanwhile, Verizon is giving post-paid customers talk, text and data relief, and pre-paid customers an extra 3 GB of data.

The efforts made from telecoms companies following the recent extreme weather have been welcomed, but with AccuWeather estimating the cost of both Irma and Harvey to be as high as $290 billion, there is still clearly a huge task ahead to repair the livelihoods of thousands of families.